This a slightly revised version of my first Advent sermon that I shared on Sunday, November 28. In it I quote a Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals. She is a pastor and spiritual director who works for our family of Baptist churches and was a part of the team who produced am Advent resource called “Restore Brightness.” You can find that resource here.
The last two years have been ones of great difficulty: people have experienced and continue to experience fear, grief, anger, and uncertainty. We continue to experience these things.
What is our world hoping for but for the end of the COVID pandemic? People are hoping for a return to life “as normal.” And I think we’re right to ask whether this is a hope we can expect to see fulfilled.
What are you hoping for? And, more importantly, what gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? What does it mean to be a people of hope?
Think of the prophecy of Zechariah from Luke 1. Zechariah was a priest. As a first century Jew, he had spent his whole life waiting for—hoping for—God’s promised Messiah.
And by the time we get to Zechariah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to say or do something: to act on their behalf, to bring deliverance, to fulfill their hopes. Between the end of the OT period and the coming of Jesus there were what many call 400 years of silence.
Zechariah describes God’s people who had to endure this long stretch of time as those who live in darkness and the shadow of death. Similarly, in Isaiah 9:2 the people of Israel are described as people walking in darkness.
The prophet Isaiah and Zechariah the priest didn’t hide from the darkness or pretend it wasn’t real. They were honest about it. They stated it plainly. The same ought to be true of us. Let’s put it this way: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness.
Sometimes churches can give the impression that difficult questions and feelings of pain and struggle aren’t welcome on Sunday morning or at prayer meeting. Sometimes our church culture is a “have-to-have-answers-for-every-struggle” culture. We want to leap to fixing things, to helping people feel better without really acknowledging the trouble they’re experiencing. Worse, sometimes we downplay the darkness. We make it about not having enough faith. And we leave people in their pain, now with guilt added on top of it.
Scripture and the whole story of Israel, Jesus, and the early church invite us to acknowledge and to be honest about the darkness. Of course, for the people of Israel in Zechariah’s day, the darkness was the fact that God had been seemingly absent or at least silent for 4 centuries. The darkness they were going through had everything to do with their relationship with God. Where was he? When was he going to do something about their situation?
We too can feel the weight of these questions. We can feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world around us. We can also feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world inside of us.
Darkness can be external and internal. We can experience darkness on account of circumstances or we can go through the darkness of depression and that colours how we experience everything around us.
The main point here is that experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. Naming it. Confessing it. Speaking it. Praying it. Getting it out. We see psalmists, for example, doing exactly this.
Psalm 13 is one psalm of lament. Part of that Psalm goes like this:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I store up anxious concerns within me,
agony in my mind every day?
Another translation renders it this way:
I’m hurting, Lord—will you forget me forever?
How much longer, Lord?
Will you look the other way when I’m in need?
How much longer must I cling to this constant grief?
I’ve endured this shaking of my soul.
Do you hear how the psalmist is praying? Do you hear the honesty in his voice? Are we able to pray like this? Are we willing to pray like this when the situation calls for it? Can we be that honest before God?
I think we struggle with this idea. I think often we were taught to be nice, even in our prayers. Prayers in the Bible aren’t always neat and nice; instead, they’re often messy and vulnerable. I think there’s plenty of darkness—plenty of difficult things—both out there and in our hearts to pray about, to come to God about, to cry out about.
Here’s the thing: if we aren’t honest about the darkness, then we won’t see our need for light. And we won’t turn to the one who can shine light into our darkness.
Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals tells about how last October 5 people in her family died in 9 days. She talks about feeling “like a zombie, lost and numb.” She found herself, like the people described by Isaiah and Zechariah, walking in darkness. But she was honest before God about all of it. She didn’t avoid it; she faced it directly. She puts it this way:
As I sat in darkness, internally and externally, crying out to God, waiting in silence for God to come to me. As I saw my need and opened myself to God’s presence, stripped away my pretense, and allowed the Holy Spirit to come close and minister to my soul. The Light of God’s presence broke through! God’s word came to me: ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness. I’m here.’ The eyes of my heart began to perceive more of the light of God’s presence . . . As one who sat in darkness, I can testify to the reality and power of the Light—Jesus’ presence and power—when we seek him in the midst of our darkness and the world’s darkness. My life has been transformed by my experience of God’s light in my darkness.
Only when she was honest about her darkness did she begin to experience the light of hope in Jesus. Finding ourselves in a place where we realize how desperate we are for God, how profoundly we need him, is where we can also begin to experience him as our hope.
Both Isaiah and Zechariah both acknowledge the darkness but then point to light, to hope, to the power of the presence of God when we trust him in the darkness. Think of Zechariah’s words again. He doesn’t wallow in the dark. His prayer points us to the light: Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Isaiah does the same: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness. The psalmist of Psalm (Psalm 13) puts it in a more personal way: Consider me and answer, Lord my God. Restore brightness to my eyes. In other words: Experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness.
Dawn is coming. For Isaiah and Zechariah, it was all about the coming of God’s Messiah, the Chosen One who would deliver God’s people and bring salvation—that was their hope and what made it possible to endure the darkness.
And Jesus the Messiah did come. Dawn arrived. But not everyone saw Jesus for who he was. Not everyone sees Jesus for who he is even now. Sometimes God shines his light into our darkness in ways we don’t expect.
Having hope in Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness means at least a couple of things. First, just as we celebrate the first advent or coming of Jesus at Christmas, we also await the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. This is what some have called our blessed hope. It is our ultimate hope, when God will finally put an end to the darkness and his light will be all in all.
But Jesus is also our light now. While our ultimate hope is far off (though we don’t know how far off!), we can experience in our lives now—no matter how dark it gets—flickers of Jesus’ light. Our hope in Jesus means that we can experience the power of his presence even in our lives today. Our hope is not only that one day he will arrive to expel all of the darkness but that he can meet us and be with us in our darkness here and now.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light [which] shines in the darkness. And then we’re told the darkness did not overcome it. No matter how deep the darkness is, it cannot overcome or extinguish the light of Jesus.
To quote Cheryl Ann Beals one more time: “Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives. No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.”
Where do you need Jesus right now? How do you need to experience his presence in your life? What do you want him to do for you? Are you looking to him with honesty about the darkness in the world and the darkness in your own life?
Because: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. And, moreover, experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness. This is what it means to be people of hope.
So the question is: are we going to be people of hope or not? Are we going to respond to the darkness around us and inside of us like people who don’t share our hope in Christ? Or will we trust Christ to shine his light into our darkness? Christ is who gives us hope. He is our hope. Whatever is going on the world, whether COVID or something else, and whatever is going on inside of us, whether fear or uncertainty, only Jesus can truly give us hope. Only Jesus can shine light into the darkness.
In other words: to know and experience Jesus is to have hope. If we want to have real hope, genuine hope, hope that enables us to persevere and be resilient no matter what the circumstances are, we need to turn to Christ. Because Jesus is the hope of the world.
I began by asking the following questions: What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? If Christ is our hope, then our answers to these questions should be different—surely, in part at least—than the answers of our neighbours. If Christ is our hope—the light in our darkness—then surely we should be people of hope, people who increasingly shine. If Christ is our hope, then surely we will be and continue to become people who, while sometimes finding ourselves in darkness, are never overcome by it. So may Jesus be our hope and light no matter how dark it gets.